The debate in Fort Smith between automated and non-automated trash collection with 2,402 households among all 28,673 households is instructive in that it well serves as an obvious symptom of micromanagement by a part-time governing board collectively possessing little to no political discipline.
In addition to being instructive, the issue is disappointing, frustrating, unnecessary, has proven costly to the citizens of Fort Smith and is likely to prove more costly. It is much more than just a simple policy disagreement. The issue likely marks the conversion from troubling trend to the modus operandi of political amateurs.
In 2006, the Fort Smith Board of Directors voted to enact an automated trash collection program under the belief the approximate $3.1 million investment in equipment would result in greater efficiencies, to include lower costs for citizens and safer working conditions for sanitation employees.
To date, the city’s Department of Sanitation (DOS) has automated 24,578 households, with 4,095 remaining. Of the 4,095 households with non-automated service, the DOS uses six people with three trucks over a three-day period each week to collect the trash. If the homes were automated, the DOS would need three people with two trucks working one day.
Prior to the automated service, trash service fees rose every three years. Since 2007, there has not been a fee increase. In fact, if automation is allowed for all households, the $14.38 monthly fee could be lowered.
Automated service has allowed the DOS to not add new full-time employees. The DOS, which operates with 78 full-time staffers, does spend about $170,000 a year on temp workers. That spending would go away or be greatly reduced if all households are under an automated trash collection service.
In the past six years, 52 workers’ comp claims have been filed by DOS employees operating non-automated equipment and processes. There have been zero (0) claims with employees on the automated side.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors will consider on Tuesday (June 5) an action to exempt 13 of the remaining 21 neighborhoods slated to receive automated trash services. Park Hill East is already exempted. If the 14 total exemptions are allowed, expect fee increases of around $2.50 for all city households. The estimated 17.38% increase would cover the cost of inefficiencies related to non-automated collection in 8.3% of Fort Smith households.
It is the actions of Directors Philip Merry and Pam Weber that have been most disappointing and disturbing on this issue. And not just with this issue. They have proven to be micromanaging meddlers — to the point of being bullies — with several issues, to include proposed animal control ordinances and the Fort Smith-Van Buren “true up” issue.
Prior to the 2010 election, Merry and Weber were the most adamant in their assurances to The City Wire that they would eschew the micromanaging tendencies of previous city Board members.
But with respect to the run up to Tuesday’s vote on automated trash collection, Merry and Weber have exhibited nerve beyond judgment. They demanded citizen surveys on the issue. When the first survey produced results — a majority preferred automation — that did not support their cause, they demanded a second survey. When that survey delivered results counter to their claims, a third survey was demanded. The third survey gave them the results they wanted.
Weber dared to say during a recent interview that an “overwhelming majority” of residents in the 13 neighborhoods don’t want automated trash service. Weber also noted, “I don’t think we are a one-size-fits-all city.” (Except, of course, for the animal control ordinances she and Merry seek to shove through the system.)
Merry said “the 55% (who oppose automated collection) of the 27% (who responded) is pretty clear.” That’s right; 442 households out of 804 who responded are apparently enough to counter the full implementation of a modern trash collection system that will save the city millions and significantly lower the incident of injury among city employees.
City Directors Andre Good and Kevin Settle were quick to point out the fallacy of Merry and Weber’s wildly convenient assessment of the third survey. Good said the city “did not listen to the first two surveys the city conducted,” which indicated a majority wanted automated collection.
“The fruit was poisoned from the time we reverted back (to manual collection), and the surveys were tainted. People heard what they wanted to hear,” Settle noted during a May 29 Board study session.
Nkokheli, the embattled director of the one city department that successfully operates like a business, told the Board that his department heard from many in the thrice surveyed neighborhoods that the lower participation rate was “due to a certain apathy since the board had voted against the stated preferences of the majority on the last two surveys. ... We didn’t get a lot of people, who felt it would matter one way or the other (how they responded).”
In all, the city has spent more than $60,000 on the three surveys — an amount and reality that will make it hard to ever again believe Directors Merry and Weber are focused on the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Merry, Weber and the vocal minority in the neighborhoods have raised numerous objections to the automated collection program. But with each objection, Nkokheli provides a solution.
With each solution offered by the DOS, another objection is brought forward. It will never stop. It’s like the surveys. The vocal minority will whine and wail — at the expense of taxpayers — until they get the answers/results they want.
“What remains is a mere preference,” Nkokheli said of the ongoing resistance to automated service.
Essentially the anti-automation crowd says the potential harm to city employees, the lack of fulfillment of a more than $3 million investment in automation and increased monthly sanitation fees for all city households is worth accommodating the conveniences of a minority of homeowners in about 8% of the city’s neighborhoods.
This entire incident further proves my theory that Logic is no match against Loud, especially with governing bodies lacking political discipline.
“After six years of this program, the reward to the citizens for their cooperation and patience (in converting to automation) would be to see their sanitation rate decrease. Now, I don’t know how much better you can get than that,” Nkokheli recently explained. “But if the Board does not allow us to complete this last and final phase of expansion ... it will result in a rate increase of about $2.50 a month per household.”
Ron Holifield, with Keller, Texas-based Strategic Government Resources, told Board members during an April 2011 board retreat that if they would “quit jacking around on the little decisions,” they will create time to “focus on the big stuff.”
Holifield also challenged Board members to not let a small, vocal minority guide the direction of the $200 million entity that is the city of Fort Smith. He added that a $200 million business would not automatically change company policy just because a few customers complained.
“The bottom line is you are on the board of a $200 million corporation. You gotta act like it,” Holifield told the Directors.
If the Board won’t “act like it,” let’s hope the shareholders (citizens/voters) will. And I again remind Kind Readers who are voters that municipal elections in 2012 and 2014 will be of critical importance if this second-largest Arkansas city is to move forward in a manner that approaches our collective potential.